colin horgan

@cfhorgan

The war against online ads is really the war for online ads

August 9th 2017

Facebook and Google are pushing for faster pages and fewer pop-ups. To what end?

Created by D3images — Freepik.com

“We’ve heard from people that it’s frustrating to click on a link that leads to a slow-loading webpage,” Facebook engineers wrote on the company’s blog last week, adding that “as many as 40 percent of website visitors abandon a site after three seconds of delay.”

So, Facebook is changing its algorithm yet again, this time to favour sites that will load quickly.

“We’ll soon take into account the estimated load time of a webpage that someone clicks to from any link in News Feed on the mobile app,” they explained. “Factors such as the person’s current network connection and the general speed of the corresponding webpage will be considered. If signals indicate the webpage will load quickly, the link to that webpage might appear higher in your feed.”

Speed is also behind recent moves by Google and Apple to control the ads that appear online.

We will never escape email

Google recently announced that it would introduce an ad-blocking version of its browser, Chrome. It will soon block any ads that aren’t compliant with the Better Ads Standards, which is a set of guidelines established by a group called the Coalition for Better Ads, of which both Google and Facebook are members (among many others).

In a recent report, Google named 700 sites that, according to Digiday, were “warranting corrective action.” Those included a handful of news sites — the Jerusalem Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Independent, Reader’s Digest, New York Daily News, and CBS News. As Digiday reported: “One aspect of [Google’s] plan that may raise alarms with publishers is that Google hasn’t ruled out filtering all of a failing site’s ads — not just the offending ads.”

The changes are being sold by both Facebook and Google as improvements on user experience. For its part, Google has stated that its goal, via Chrome, is to give “users the best possible experience browsing the web.” And no doubt users will welcome a new environment where they are less bothered by advertisements and pages that load at a crawl.

But these shifts are also taking place at a time when the efficacy of online advertising is being questioned — by the advertisers. Earlier this year, there was much to-do about how shocked advertisers were after discovering promotions for their products were appearing alongside unsavoury material on YouTube, but that was only part of an emerging story.

Why were Facebook, Google, and Amazon so quiet about net neutrality?

The real issue was ‘programmatic’ ads — advertising placed on sites by machines to match the profile of the user, based on their browser cookies and other factors. Namely, the trouble is that, despite the boasting from Google and others, programmatic advertising doesn’t work as well as it sounds like it should. A report earlier this year (via an ad firm) suggested that “29% of programmatic ads (ads sold through an automated process) resulted in invalid traffic, as opposed to 12% of ads sold directly by humans.”

Last week, the Financial Times reported that Proctor and Gamble, which has the biggest ad budget in the world, is losing faith in digital ads more broadly. P&G’s quarterly report revealed that it revealed that it had drastically reduced its digital ad spending and observed that the move had no impact on revenue growth.

“So, the largest advertising spender in the world stopped spending money on digital ads, and apparently didn’t really notice a difference,” Alexandra Scaggs wrote at the FT.

In short, people are not seeing online ads. That’s a problem. People need to see ads. Advertisers need people to see ads, obviously. Facebook and Google need people to see ads.

So what do they do?

Maybe they make sure people see the right ads in the right places. They direct users to their apps or browsers because they can better guarantee people will actually see the ads that are displayed.

For Facebook, that means prompting sites that load slowly to adopt its quick-loading Instant Articles, where ads are displayed without interfering with the content and are interspersed in such a way that users have to scroll past — they will definitely see the ad. For Google, it means blocking bad advertisements, and threatening to block all ads unless sites with poor advertisements get their act together and adhere to Google’s guidelines for ‘good’ ads.

As for publishers and website owners?

Data analytics firm Parse.ly estimates Facebook currently drives 44 per cent of referral traffic to its customers, which include Condé Nast (publisher of the New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair), Slate, the Telegraph, and HuffPost. Google accounts for 33 per cent.

In other words, all these new changes mean for publishers is the start of a new spin on the same old hellish eyeball-and-revenue-chasing cycle. It means they either adapt to the rules established by the tech platforms or… well, might as well shut it down.

More by colin horgan

More Related Stories